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2018 Atlanta Braves Player Review: Kevin Gausman

When the Trade Deadline came around, much of Braves Country was clamoring for a trade to acquire then-Rays (now Pittsburgh) starter Chris Archer. Instead Alex Anthopoulos and company decided to make a trade for the Kevin Gausman of the Orioles. The move was met with mixed reactions of disappointment and intrigue.

Thankfully, Kevin Gausman did not disappoint and made the Braves front office look smart. Gausman nearly reached 1 fWAR during his 10 starts in an Atlanta uniform and struck out 44 men in 59 innings. His ERA as a Brave was just 2.87 and Gausman was a big part of Atlanta’s late season playoff push.

Gausman is under contract through the 2021 season. With two arbitration years remaining, he’ll be a relatively cheap, middle of the rotation arm in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.

Losing Jean Carlos Encarnacion hurt the most at the time of the trade, but really this was one of the more lopsided deadline deals made. Encarnacion had a 67 wRC+ to finish the season in an Orioles (well, Delmarva Shorebirds) uniform, and that’s with a .308 BABIP. Brett Cumberland had a decent 95 wRC+ at Double-A in 49 PAs for his new organization. Evan Phillips continued to exhibit pumpkin-like qualities in the majors and finished the season at Triple-A, and, finally, Bruce Zimmermann experienced a reversal of fortune from his peripheral-beating starts at Mississippi and suffered an ERA over 5.00 (4.31 FIP, 4.55 xFIP) over his last five starts of the year.

So, as you can see, the Braves look as though they made out like bandits on this deal and Alex Anthopolous has made a very good first impression on the fanbase during the 2018 campaign.

Bottom line, what did Gausman do in 2018? Solidified his status as a leader in the Braves young rotation for next season and beyond. He got in front of a good defense and benefited from it gobbling up grounders behind him. Gausman finished the year as a solid mid-rotation starter (2.3 fWAR in 183 and two-thirds innings). He outpitched his peripherals a bit, with a 92 ERA- on the year but only a 101 FIP- and 100 xFIP-. He had better results with the Braves (70 ERA-) but his peripherals were pretty similar (94 FIP-, 110 xFIP-)

Will Gausman be on the 2019 roster? No doubt. He will most likely draw a start the game after Opening Day, barring the Braves signing some big-time free agent pitcher. There’s also the possibility that the Braves trade him given his quality and remaining team control, but it would be strange for a team in their position to subtract from the roster at this point.

What will Gausman do in 2019? He could do big things. One could read the past few months as Gausman showing that his move from the tough division that is the AL East into something a little more laid back in the NL East was just what he needed. In this view, he finally has a good defense behind him and could continue to benefit from some pitch sequencing changes to unlock his true strikeout potential.

But, there are a few things to be wary of, if not concerned about. Despite moving to an easier division, Gausman’s peripherals actually got worse after the trade, as his 13.5% K%-BB% shrunk to 10.7% thanks to both an increase in walks and a decrease in strikeouts. A lot of his run prevention success could be attributed to a low HR/FB, and the 110 xFIP- he posted in an Atlanta uniform is a fairly uncomfortable number. Beyond that, one bit of armchair pitching coach advice for Gausman has always been to throw his split-change more, but he increased his usage of it only nine percent, with most of it coming at the expense of his slider rather than his fastball. This change in pitch mix saw him getting more whiffs on pitches outside the zone, but fewer inside the zone; further, the much-publicized idea that the Braves were having him throw more first-pitch strikes didn’t really manifest as his rate barely budged between his two teams (56.6%, 58.3%).

Until he shows otherwise, it’s hard to expect Gausman to immediately jump back to a pitching line similar to the one he had in 2016 (85 ERA-, 93 FIP-, 89 xFIP-), but he should still be a solid middle-of-the-rotation option.

Highlight of 2018: Gausman’s fourth start as a Brave was a ton of fun. He shut down the Pirates for eight innings as the Braves cruised to an eventually-easy victory. While it wasn’t his most downright-dominant start of the year (he had thrown a complete game shutout against the Athletics while an Oriole) or even of his second half (he carved up the Brewers with eight scoreless and an 8/0 K/BB ratio two starts prior), his outing against the Pirates was one where he made a slim lead stand up until the Braves broke away late.

Lowlight of 2018: Gausman really only had one clunker as a Brave, and he never reached some of the lows he experienced earlier in the year after being traded. Still, his outing against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix was a modest nightmare. He ended up allowing four runs in four and two-thirds along with a 4/4 K/BB ratio and a towering homer yielded to Paul Goldschmidt. The outing would have looked even more grim for the Braves had either of his two walks in the fifth not been stranded on the bases after he departed.

Now, that outing was just one poor start, but there are a few reasons why it’s being highlighted as a lowlight. First, as mentioned above, Gausman was apparently asked to focus more on first-pitch strikes, but that doesn’t mean it always happened. This start featured his lowest rate of such in an Atlanta uniform, and one of his lowest on the season. When Gausman’s command is off and he can’t get ahead, this start could be an example of what’s liable to occur, and it’s not awesome. Second, Gausman actually threw a ton of split-changes in this game, over 40 percent, one of his highest rates of the season. But with poor command an inability to find the zone (only 30 percent of his pitches on the day were in the rulebook strike zone), hitters just waited it out and dealt Gausman an early exit.

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